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Differences in functional brain network connectivity during stories presented in audio, illustrated, and animated format in preschool-age children


The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that parents begin reading to their children soon after birth, and limits on screen-based media. Benefits of traditional book-sharing are well documented in children, while cited deleterious effects of animated content on narrative processing are controversial. The influence of story format on underlying functional brain networks has not previously been studied. Thirty-three healthy children were recruited for this study via advertisement at an academic medical center, which involved functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) at a single visit. Twenty-seven of them completed fMRI (82%; 15 boys, 12 girls; mean 58 ± 8 months old). The fMRI protocol involved the presentation of 3 similar, unrhymed stories by the same author lasting 5 min each in audio, illustrated, and animated format during separate runs, followed by a test of factual recall. Within- and between-network functional connectivity (FC) was compared across formats involving five functional networks, which were defined via literature review and refined via a data-driven parcellation method: visual perception, visual imagery, language, Default Mode (DMN), and cerebellar association. For illustration relative to audio, FC was decreased within the language network and increased between visual, DMN, and cerebellar networks, suggesting decreased strain on the language network afforded by pictures and visual imagery. Between-network connectivity was decreased for all networks for animation relative to the other formats, particularly illustration, suggesting a bias towards visual perception at the expense of network integration. These findings suggest substantial differences in functional brain network connectivity for animated and more traditional story formats in preschool-age children, reinforcing the appeal of illustrated storybooks at this age to provide efficient scaffolding for language, and suggesting novel neurobiological correlates of how functional networks may contribute to this process.

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American Academy of Pediatrics


Blood oxygen level–dependent


Cerebellar network


Default Mode Network


False discovery rate


Functional connectivity


Functional magnetic resonance imaging


Language network


Montreal Neurologic Institute


Socioeconomic status


Visual imagery network


Visual perception network


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The authors would like to thank Christy Banks for coordinating recruitment and administration of our fMRI protocol, and Dr. Jennifer Vannest for providing critique of early drafts of this manuscript. We thank Robert Munsch for his writing and storytelling, and permission to use audio and video versions used in this research. We finally thank the Thrasher Research Fund for their support of early-career investigators and this work.

Contributors’ statement

John S. Hutton designed all aspects of the study including brain network selection and definition, collaborated in analyses, drafted the initial manuscript and subsequent revisions, and approved the final manuscript as submitted.

Jonathan Dudley conducted brain network parcellation and all fMRI and other statistical analyses used in this study, created all tables and figures, assisted with manuscript preparation and revision, and approved the final manuscript as submitted.

Tzipi Horowitz-Kraus provided guidance on study design and analysis, assisted with MRI acquisition, reviewed and revised the manuscript, and approved the final manuscript as submitted.

Tom DeWitt provided guidance on study design, analysis, and presentation, reviewed and revised the manuscript, and approved the final manuscript as submitted.

Scott K. Holland provided guidance on study design and presentation, developed the concept for the a priori network connectivity approach used in the analysis, helped develop and oversaw the MRI acquisition protocol, and reviewed and approved the final manuscript as submitted.

Funding source

This study was funded by a grant from the Thrasher Research Fund with additional support provided via a Ruth L Kirschstein National Research Service Award (Hutton).

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Correspondence to John S. Hutton.

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Conflict of interest

Drs. Hutton, Dudley, Horowitz-Kraus, DeWitt, and Holland declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Informed consent

All procedures followed were in accordance with the ethical standards of the responsible committee on human experimentation (institutional and national) and with the Helsinki Declaration of 1975, and the applicable revisions at the time of the investigation. Informed consent was obtained from all patients for being included in the study.

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The authors have no financial relationships relevant to this article to disclose.

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Hutton, J.S., Dudley, J., Horowitz-Kraus, T. et al. Differences in functional brain network connectivity during stories presented in audio, illustrated, and animated format in preschool-age children. Brain Imaging and Behavior 14, 130–141 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11682-018-9985-y

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  • fMRI
  • Functional connectivity
  • Narrative processing
  • Story listening
  • Children
  • Visual imagery
  • Screen time
  • Shared reading